E Street guitarist credits Carolina crowds, prepares for rare US festival stop

by Ryan Snyder

There’s something special about the Carolinas, at least that’s what Little Steven Van Zandt believes. The actor, radio host and longtime guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band lent more than a little credence to one fan’s “Steensboro” proclamation-by-sign from the band’s May 2 performance at the Greensboro Coliseum. “I say this every year, but the loudest, rowdiest crowd is always in the Carolinas. I don’t know why. Nobody knows why, but every year it’s true,” Van Zandt stated. “There is something about that area that’s just extremely vocal, extremely enthusiastic and [fans] participate at the show in a level that’s a little bit higher than everybody else.” For the sake of accuracy, he did cast the ubiquitous term “Carolinas” to include both North and South, though the band’s stops in South Carolina are far less frequent than their yearly stops in Greensboro and Charlotte. Only twice has the band played in South Carolina in this decade: once in Columbia and once in Charleston. Yet it’s those fans in both states, he added, that stand atop the music-listening world. “We have a very, very consistent audience who is very understating about the fact that we did some things and do new things.” Van Zandt says. “It’s a tribute to our audience that they encourage it and support the new ideas, the new songs and they’re not expecting a nostalgia type of act, which we’re just not that.” Some of those new things include breaking from the script of leaning on Springsteen’s ever-expanding catalog to play some of the most left-field requests that their fans could possibly conceive, a practice that started toward the end of the 2008 tour. It’s become a kind of game with the audience — call it “Stump the E Street Band.” Take the most unexpected classic that you can think of from the ’50s to the ’80s, draw it up on a cardboard sign and hand it to Bruce midway through their show. Many have tried and all have failed; all a band this experienced and cohesive needs is a little melody. But this new live direction shouldn’t be misconstrued that the band is running out of ideas. “It just loosens everybody up and keeps the thing fresh, and there’s nothing like playing the song, you’ve never played before and never rehearsed before, before 20,000 people,” Van Zandt says. “It’s just kind of an immediate sort of joke that kind of keeps everybody very awake.” The logistical aspect of taking spontaneous requests shouldn’t be overlooked, however. Despite their barband work ethic, there are still hurdles that have to be worked out on stage in order for this device to be continually successful. “Somebody requested ‘Mony Mony.’ We’re going through [it] in our heads and Bruce says, ‘Isn’t there a funny riff in the middle?’ and we were asking around, ‘Anybody remember that riff?’ Nah. ‘Alright, we’ll figure it out when we get there,’” Steven says. “We just jump in and get to the middle of the song and if nobody remembers the riff, we kind of skip to the next part.” They may have their biggest test yet coming into a rare US festival appearance. The band will break from the extensive European leg of their tour for an entire weekend to headline June’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. With past headliners traditionally breaking out some of the most sought-after rarities in their catalogs, Van Zandt and the rest of the E Street Band will surely be called on to take their three-hour set up a notch. Van Zandt says he suspects much of the crowd will have never heard Springsteen’s music, let alone have seen the band live, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that big changes in their show are afoot for this one gig. “I don’t think you can change things too much and every night is different, every tour is different. There is a very wide range of songs that we’ve done over the years that Bruce has written over the course of 30, 35 years,” Van Zandt stated. “Every time he writes a new album, he is basically writing a new show. We build the show with other songs from the past and see what connects to it, amplifies that idea and complements that idea.”